A special preview of the first chapter of Emerald's upcoming YA Fantasy release, Midnight Motel, Book 1 in The Anna Kelleher Chronicles.
Anna Kelleher arrived at The Golden Leaf Motel as dusk approached, desperate to keep the promise she made to the person she had loved most.
It hadn’t been her intention to confront her mother’s side of the family so soon after the funeral service, but as she drove through the day into night, Anna knew if she’d waited any longer, she wouldn’t do it at all.
The service had been held exactly one week after her grandma Martie passed away of cancer. Her friends, Pete and Cassie, met her in front of the funeral home and their condolences had barely sunk in before her dad pulled into the lot.
After the service, her dad gave her a short hug and shuffled off without saying a word before they left the funeral home for the cemetery. It had been months since she’d spoken to him, and almost a year since they’d come face to face. He’d always taken pride in travelling for work, and if she’d had to hear him brag about pharmaceutical sales while his own mom attended chemotherapy and radiation, she’d have lost it on him.
Anna spent most of the time after he arrived focused on avoiding any awkward encounters with him. He and the rest of her paternal side came to pay their respects to the glue that held their family together, but Anna doubted her maternal side had even heard of the passing.
After driving in the funeral procession to the cemetery in a daze, she’d forgotten how she even got there. She mourned the loss of the best friend she’d ever had, and as she stood over her grave, her deflated body barely held itself up.
With the financial help from her dad, and some support from her uncle and a personal support worker, she’d cared for her grandma at home until the very end, save for the hospital visits. Just how her grandma had wanted it to be, and that was the reason she never confronted her absentee father or the rest of the family about the lack of their presence after her diagnosis.
We’ve got each other, Anna.
After the service, she thanked her friends for coming and accepted a rare hug from Pete before striding off to her car without a word to the rest of her family. Tears poured from her eyes, soaking into the neckline of the jade dress her grandma had made for her, turning it an emerald green. She choked on her saliva as she gasped, not for breath, but for answers.
Why did it have to be her? The kindest person Anna had ever known. The only person Anna had ever felt truly loved by.
Why couldn’t she have gone peacefully in her sleep? Why had such a terrible disease that first took her hair, then her appetite, and eventually her ability to breathe been the way she left this world?
Anna wiped under her eyes, smearing mascara along her fingers. She swept her long dark curls over her shoulder, leaning back against her seat as the cool air hit her neck—soothing her.
She couldn’t go back home where she’d lived with her grandma for almost a decade.
Her grandma’s things still had to be sorted and divided between the family, and the lease on her apartment would be up by the end of the month, but Anna couldn’t think about any of it.
Her grandma’s pictures displayed at the funeral had been too painful to look at. They mocked her as she walked by them, trying to focus on anything else but her grandma’s thin-lipped smile that greeted her every morning over the past ten years. The twinkle she’d get in her eyes when she was pleased with Anna, or excited about something. The pictures were just a reminder that they were the only way she’d see her face again, and she couldn’t go home to them.
To the smell of fresh lavender laundry detergent Anna got a whiff of every time she hugged her goodbye before school. To the ironing board all set-up beside the pile of their clean clothes. To the left-overs in the fridge from the fantastic meal the night before that she’d never have made for her again.
She grabbed her locket tight in her fist and let the tears keep falling.
I love you, Grandma.
As she sniffled, she turned the key in the ignition, but before she put the car in drive, she rested her hands on the wheel.
It’s time to make good on that promise.
She let go of the locket, and instead of turning right, she made a left out of the cemetery.
Anna had packed a small beach bag before she left, intent on staying at her best friend Cassie’s place, or even sleeping in her car. Anything to avoid facing the memories that made her chest ache.
She drove as fond memories swirled in her head, of Sundays with her grandma at her friend’s nursing home. Of reading to the group, and stealing a glance at her grandma’s face every so often, pride written all over it.
Deep wrinkles all over it, too. Ones she seemed embarrassed of, covering her cheeks with her hands when she laughed too hard. Most days, Anna would take her hand in hers and remind her how beautiful she was. That those lines were from a life well-lived and that she could only hope to have as many when she was her age. Her grandma would shoo her hand away and roll her eyes, but a small smile remained on her lips in the seconds after those special moments.
Painful memories came, too, and Anna tried to keep them at bay as best she could. Her grandma made her promise not to think of those times towards the end. To think of only the good, but she couldn’t help it.
Countless times, she’d thought about turning around, but something pulled her to the motel. Or pushed her. She couldn’t be sure, but it felt like something more than a promise. It was instinctual.
By the time she reached Maple View, the big orange sun had sunk in the sky, and she knew it wasn’t an accident that she’d ended up in the small town she spent her early childhood in. She passed the large shiny boulder on the side of the road. As a child, she knew it meant she was almost home.
As she pulled into the entrance of the deserted L-shaped parking lot, her heart beat louder in her chest.
The Golden Leaf Motel.
The last place she had to turn to.
And she wouldn’t have tried if it weren’t for her grandma.
On her deathbed, she made her a promise.
To let love in.
She’d whispered the simple words, knowing Anna would understand. They rarely spoke about her mother’s side. Her grandma rarely spoke a bad word about anyone, even her son, Anna’s father, who’d rather travel for business than spend time with his own daughter. Her grandma nodded and held her after every time Anna visited her mom, having given her chance after chance to prove she was a priority in her life, and being disappointed each time.
“There, there,” she’d whisper.
Acknowledging Anna’s hurt. Holding her tight even at the beginning when Anna was first dropped off on her doorstep. When her mom said she couldn’t do it anymore and finally meant it. It had been years since her mother held her the way her grandma did, and she’d struggled to pull away at first.
But her grandma broke down her wall piece by piece.
She became her only soft place to fall in the years that followed. Safe from the harsh reality of Anna’s life before she came to stay with her.
And all she wanted, lying on her death bed, was for Anna to give it one more try.
As she squeezed her grandma’s hand, she promised her, hoping in her heart that there was a chance to make good on it.
But her grandma didn’t know all the details. She didn’t know her mom well at all. She seemed to understand why Anna’s mom brought her to stay, or at the very least, she wasn’t angry at Constance for it. She couldn’t know what Anna had been through, though. The anger and hurt, and then the fear that her mom had left her for good that day.
The day she made the decision to trust herself and only herself from then on in.
Her grandma had squeezed her hand back, satisfied with her promise.
By then, she’d made an exception to her rule—only for her grandma—trusting her implicitly. Owing her every bit of happiness she’d had in her life since living with her.
And Anna knew she had to at least try.
She pulled her visor down, and studied her face, wiping the streaks of mascara and liner from her big doe eyes.
She flipped her long dark curls in front of her shoulders and adjusted her black blazer over her dress before flipping the visor back up. She grabbed her purse and hung it over her shoulder as she stepped out of her old car and slammed the door shut. The gravel on the lot crunched under her black ankle boots as she strode toward the office on the far-left side of the building.
The brick building stood just one story tall in the shape of an L. The right side led toward the back at the bottom of the L. At the far left, the office was located at the top of the L. Loose shingles hung from the edges of the roof. Each white door had black faded numbers above the peep holes, and drab dark gray curtains covered each window.
The unlit white sign overhead with the motel’s name in gold towered over her and the whole building stood in darkness.
Anna slowed down as she approached, convinced the place had shut down. She’d never have known if it had. She hadn’t spoken to her mom in years, and the last she’d seen of her uncle, she still attended elementary school.
The sun had sank below the horizon, leaving trails of orange streaked across the royal blue sky. A lump formed in her throat and she swallowed hard before she reached the office door. She twisted the knob and pulled without any movement.
She took her cell phone out of her pocket and scrolled through to her mom’s number.
What would she say?
Grandma passed away.
I came to see you.
She wasn’t sure which of the two lines she dreaded uttering more.
Someone should be here.
Anna slipped her phone back in her purse and wiped her clammy hands against her dress, walking onto the lot again.
Has everyone left me?
The chirping of crickets from the back field answered her before she turned back toward her car, and a man leaning against a shovel stood on the lot a few feet away, gripping the handle with his gloves.
She took a step back and glanced around them. The Golden Leaf Motel sign buzzed behind him, the light flickering on and off, casting a stark shadow over him. She couldn’t see him well, but he wore work boots and a hooded sweater. Taller than her with a solid frame. She took another step back.
“Can I help you?” He asked in a raspy voice.
“I’m looking for Cal.” She readjusted her purse over her shoulder and raised her voice. “Calloway Thorpe. Who are you?”
He walked toward her, and as he closed the distance between them, she could make out his facial features. He smiled and stared at her from just beneath his brow, stopping just short of her.
She straightened her posture and pursed her lips.
“He should be in there.” He gestured toward the office, not taking his eyes off her for long. “How do you know Cal?”
He looked a little older than Anna, with short dirty blonde hair, some of it held in part of a style, while other pieces fell in front of his face. It must have been weeks since he’d shaved, and his scruffy beard matched his hair colour.
Anna turned around and walked toward the office door again. She knocked on the glass three times and turned back toward the attractive man still standing a few feet away.
When she’d decided he was attractive, she didn’t know, but she kept her unfazed façade in place as she avoided eye contact with him.
“He might be passed out,” he said, grinning, “and if he is, there’s no way you’ll wake him up by knocking.”
Anna shrugged before turning back to the door and knocking harder.
“I have the key.”
Metal jingled behind her and she looked over her shoulder. He held a large ring of keys up in front of him.
Anna batted her lashes a few times and smiled.
Maybe you’re more helpful than I thought.
“Could you open the door for me, please?”
He tossed the key chain in the air just above his head and caught it again.
“Depends. Will you tell me your name?”
She took a soft strand of her hair and twisted it around her finger, shifting her weight onto one foot while supporting herself on the toes of the other.
Her grandma’s name slipped out and she let go of her hair, the smile slipping from her lips.
She hadn’t said her grandma’s name in so long, and she surprised herself with the alias she chose to give him.
“And how do you know Cal?” He stood up tall and stabbed the shovel in the gravel in front of him, letting it go.
“I told you my name,” she laughed. “It’s getting cold out here. Could you please just let me in?”
“You’re not his girlfriend,” he said. “Cal doesn’t have a girlfriend. You’re too young to be his girlfriend, anyway.”
“Not his girlfriend.” She shook her head, letting her curls sway from side to side.
“And you’re not here to book a room.” He walked up to the building and leaned against it.
“Maybe I am.” She squinted at him, pursing her lips, growing tired of his guessing game. “But you won’t know until you open the door for me.”
He shrugged and walked around her, over to the office door. “I’m just wondering why you’re here. Not many people stay here anymore. You don’t look like a debt collector.”
She released a soft sigh and stared up at the night sky, waiting.
He took his glove off, slipped the key into the door and twisted it. She put her hand on top of his, feeling the back of his rough warm hand against her cold skin, and he looked up at her, his eyes wide open.
Time to lose him.
“You’re very kind,” she said in a soft voice, as her other hand reached for the glove under his arm. “I appreciate your help…”
As she got ready to tug his glove loose, letting it fall to the floor as a distraction, she stopped.
“Short for Lachlan,” he said, and she tilted her head to the side. “But nobody calls me that anymore. It’s just Lock.”
She tugged the glove, and with a flick of the wrist, it fell to the concrete ground beside them.
“Oops,” she said softly, and started to reach down for it.
“I’ve got it,” he said, “no worries.”
That was her cue.
As soon as he bent down, she yanked the door open at the same time taking the key out with her, and pulled it shut, all before he stood up straight again.
As he reached for the door, she locked it, laughing to herself at the irony.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and nodded once at her, raising his brow.
Anna bit back a smile.
“Well played, Martie.” He grinned.
At least he gives respect where it’s due.
She saw something black out of the corner of her eye, and turned around as the black thing lunged at her from the desk.
She stumbled back against the door.
“Meow,” it cried at her feet.
She let out a sigh, ignoring the faint sound of Lock laughing behind her, as she bent down and guided her palm over the soft fur beneath her fingers.
“Pokey?” she whispered.
The cat she’d named herself as a child purred as she stroked his head.
The light turned on in the office, revealing the reflection of a tall man in the glass window, standing in the alcove to her right. He wasn’t as skinny as she remembered, but just as tall, with a thick head of dark brown hair.
“Uncle Cal,” she said, before turning around.
He shuffled towards her, his hair a mess, and his wrinkled button down shirt half tucked into his pants. His already small eyes squinted at her until she could barely see them.
“Anna.” His deep voice boomed down to her.
Was it anger in his tone?
He rolled up his sleeves, and ran his fingers through his hair as he looked past her out the window.
“Anna?” Lock’s muffled voice asked from behind the glass door. “Who’s Anna?”
Anna stood and Cal grabbed the keys from her hand—dark circles under his eyes. He twisted the key in the hole and opened the door.
“That’ll be all, Lock,” Cal barked.
He tossed him the keys and Lock caught them against his chest.
Lock raised his hand and waved goodbye to Anna while he grabbed his shovel and Cal twisted the lock on the door again.
He stumbled to the front desk, opening a drawer.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, without looking up.
Whoa, what did I do to deserve the warm welcome?
“No hello?” She muttered under her breath, but he ignored her, grabbing a plastic bottle and shaking it.
Unsatisfied with the lack of noise, he threw it over his shoulder, going straight for the next drawer. He rummaged through it and she guessed what he was looking for. She’d seen the same look in her mom’s eyes when she realized she was out of her prescription for Xanax.
Pills or alcohol?
He turned his back to her and scoured the mantel above the fireplace behind the desk. He opened a tin can and took a small bottle of whiskey with a gold label out of it. He turned around, thumped it down against the desk, and looked up at her.
“Why are you here, Anna?”
The words stung. She opened her mouth to say she already regretted it, but closed it again.
Stay calm. Now’s not the time for sarcasm.
Pokey rubbed himself against her ankles as Cal took a swig from the bottle and screwed the cap back on, shaking his head.
Was she such an inconvenience? Was she interrupting something besides his buzz?
She rested her hand on her hip, ready to lay it on him. To make him regret being so rude.
“My grandma passed away a week ago.” Her lower lip quivered as she spoke, and she pressed her lips together to make it stop.
His chest heaved up and down as a sigh escaped his lips and looked down at the desk before looking back up at her. He’d never spent any time with her grandma that she knew of, and he may not have been able to pick her out in a crowd, but he knew Anna had lived with her.
She blinked several times to keep her tears at bay.
Pokey’s weight against her body soothed her.
“I’m sorry, but that still doesn’t explain why you’re here.” He unscrewed the bottle, and took another swing.
Wow. That was it?
No sympathy. Not a care in the world from the only man she’d ever been close to.
Her chest ached as he slammed the bottle down and her shoulders jerked up.
It’s the alcohol. It has to be. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.
“I thought maybe I could stay here for a while.” Her voice shook. “Maybe I could get a room and we could talk in the morning?”
He rubbed his eyes with his palms and looked back at her.
Even if she’d picture a hundred scenarios ahead of time, she’d never have thought reconnecting with her uncle could go this poorly.
He couldn’t mean that.
He took another drink and leaned over the desk, steadying himself with both hands.
As if daring her to say anything back.
She stared into his bloodshot eyes.
“You never used to be this much of an asshole,” she sneered.
He raised his brow and shook his head, standing up straight. As he turned back to the mantel he lost his footing, and reached out, grabbing it for support.
He hadn’t been egging her on as he leaned on the desk, but rather using it as a support.
He could barely stand. He swayed from side to side as he turned over his shoulder.
“You didn’t always have such a slart mouth, either,” he slurred, grabbing the bottle. “I guess you got that from your mother.”
She clenched her jaw, hating the fact he’d compared her to the woman who’d given her up. Who’d decided to quit being a parent, but still wanted to retain control over her life.
“I’m nothing like her.”
He let out a low laugh and took another swig of the amber liquid.
“You know I have to tell her you came,” he said, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt.
“I came to see her, too,” she said, although after the comparison, she felt like doing anything but.
He scoffed and screwed the lid on the bottle. “She’s busy. You can’t see her.”
“She’s always busy.” Anna rolled her eyes. “But she doesn’t know about my grandma.”
“What can she do ‘bout it?” He pointed the bottle at her, closing one eye and staring at her with the other, like staring down the barrel of a gun. “Why are you here?”
“I told you—“ she said, about to work up the courage to let him know that she could use the time away. But she stopped herself.
What she needed was some support.
She couldn’t bare to open herself up to whatever insult he’d sling back at her.
He shook his head and stumbled out from behind the desk toward the alcove that led to the hallway.
“You’re not tellin’ me why, so if you don’t mind, lock up on your way out.” He reached his hand out to turn the light off.
“I need money,” she said, and he stopped with his back to her. “I need a job to save some money up. I was hoping I could work here.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Even if I said yes, it’s not like it’s—it’s your mom’s decision.”
“Why?” she asked. “It’s your motel.”
He staggered out of the room through the alcove that led to the rest of the motel, and she followed him, turning the light off after her.
“Nothing’s mine.” He sighed, and turned left into the door to his place directly on the other side of the office.
“Can I stay until she comes?” Anna called to him. “Until you talk to her?”
“Do whatever you want, Anna. You always do.”
Anna walked through the alcove, onto the dull burgundy carpet, and turned right, staring down the long hallway. The walls that once glowed a champagne colour looked like they’d been stained in cigarette smoke instead. She recognized the scent of cigar smoke, coffee, and burnt popcorn.
She turned back to her uncle’s door that had been closed. Only a small beam of light shone from its cracks and a clattering came from inside.
“Alright in there?” she called.
A muffled groan made her open the door all the way, revealing Cal sprawled out on his corduroy couch, one arm behind his head, and the other dangling off completely.
With his eyes closed, he rubbed his lips together and released a deep sigh.
He raised his arm and dropped it again, turning over on the couch.
Shoes still on his feet.
The ashtray on the end table beside him had been knocked over, dumping ashes and two cigars onto the carpet. She went to the sink filled with dirty dishes and wet a piece of paper towel. Back at the spot, she got down on her knees, wiping up the ashes as he began to snore.
After throwing the paper towel in the overflowing garbage, she looked around his place.
Clothes on the floor and hanging over her uncle’s prized telescope. The wooden table that had black and white squares painted on the top where he’d taught her how to play chess no longer had the pieces on it. His bed was unmade and she couldn’t bring herself to look in the washroom.
An uneasy feeling washed over her. To her memory, Cal had kept his place spotless. He’d taken pride in his things. Everything always seemed organized.
It was nothing like the place she’d known.
He was nothing like how he used to be.
Something was wrong, and with all the time between her last visit, she couldn’t begin to piece it together.
Anna went to the end of the couch, grabbed his shoes, and heaved until each one slipped off. He continued snoring through it all, and after taking a blanket from his bed and covering him with it, she turned off the light.
If she wasn’t mistaken, Cal used to tuck her in at night after reading to her. Something she hadn’t thought about until her hand rested on the cold metal door knob and she looked back at him as he must have with her countless times.
“Night, Uncle Cal,” she whispered with tears in her eyes, and shut his door firmly behind her.
What she once called home was no more, and as she wiped her eyes with her fingers, she wondered if she’d made a mistake coming back. She went back to the front desk, taking her time. Under the top shelf, she grabbed a random key and ambled back to her car to get her things.
When she got back to the motel, she checked the number on her key.
As she passed under the alcove, Pokey sat in the middle of the long hallway, waiting for her. She walked down the hall, gazing at the pictures along the walls that brought back memories. Pictures of the night sky, taken with the telescope Cal had once taken pride in. Of pressed golden leaves from autumn expeditions she’d go on by herself.
She was surprised he kept them up.
A picture hung beside room seven of five men standing together in front of a large gray building. Her grandpa stood in the middle, but she hadn’t met him before he passed away. Everyone spoke of him with great respect but she’d never liked the picture.
All their eyes staring at her.
She turned to room eight and used the skeleton key to unlock the door.
Midnight Motel releases July 26th, 2017 on all retailers.
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